In the perspective of history, what happened in Tiananmen Square, when over 1000 pro-democracy students were slain in the streets by government soldiers, will probably be seen not as the end of a decade of reform and increasing freedom, but as the beginning of an age of upheaval.
It was also the time when China’s intellectuals began to consider Christianity in a search for truth and meaning. In defeat, students and intellectuals have learned much – including the true nature of their atheistic government. The storming of Beijing on June 4, 1989, enraged and alienated a generation of China’s brightest and best, not just in the capital, but across the country.
Ever since 1989, the authorities have sought to control the students and intellectuals through various means, but they have failed to address one of the fundamental problems magnified by the pro-democracy movement – the lack of a sound ideology.
The Role of Intellectuals in 20th Century China
Looking at China’s 20th century history, Chinese intellectuals have played a major role in shaping the nation’s destiny. This was true in the overthrow of the Ch’ing Dynasty in 1911. The student riots of May 4, 1919 were an important watershed in the development of student nationalism in China. This nationalism grew through the 1920s and 1930s.
Prior to the Maoist revolution of 1949, students saw themselves as the voice of public opinion. Many were involved in human rights movements and espoused patriotism and democratic ideals. Such concepts did not just suddenly explode onto the scene in Tiananmen Square in 1989, but have been a part of a long development.
The events of June 4, 1989 have served as another turning point in Chinese history, but they have also acted as a catalyst in turning thousands of Chinese students to Christ. In many respects, the spiritual awakening within the Chinese intellectual community has no historical parallel in Chinese history.
The strand emerged, initially, in Beijing and subsequently spread to many other cities throughout China. Many of those who have embraced Christianity since June 4, 1989 are graduate students, university professors and scientists. A number are academics within the Chinese Academy of Science or the Chinese Academy of Social Science.
This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by Chinese authorities. Newspaper reports have mentioned there are now more Chinese students/intellectuals becoming Christians than those joining the Chinese Communist Party. In Beijing and other cities, over one-quarter of the government approved Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement congregations are composed of university students.
“Night and day we are busy with students and professors wanting to believe in Christ,” said one house church leader in Beijing. “We’ve never seen this sort of turning to the Lord before by Chinese intellectuals.”
Spiritual Awakening in the 1990s
Several factors have contributed to the unprecedented numbers of students and intellectuals embracing Christianity since June 1989. One is the worldwide “crisis of faith” in Marxism. Chinese authorities have linked the recent spread of Christianity in Eastern Europe with the demise of communism there.
Another reason for the intellectual revival in China in the 1990s is the perceived inept management of social, economic and political reforms by Chinese authorities. While searching for political reform and democracy, students and intellectuals came into an even more vigorous search for Truth. Truth, as an absolute, is not found in other Chinese philosophies, eg. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism or Marxism.
Overseas, the response to Christianity since June 1989 has been remarkable. Several key student leaders in the pro-democracy movement who escaped to the West have since become Christians, while many others are attending Bible study groups.
The turning to Christ by Chinese intellectuals in China and their subsequent integration into the Chinese church is essentially a Chinese phenomenon – and it is continuing.
Recently, a young Chinese university professor, who converted to Christianity in the wake of the Tiananmen Square incident, shared the gospel with his 20 students. Over half the class committed their lives to Christ that day. In another city, a young professor of music was asked to train his students to sing Christmas carols in various hotels. He asked the students if they understood what they were singing. He later shared the gospel with them and over 20 of his students (from a class of 40) became Christians.
The Chinese Church, however, is still ill-equipped to accommodate and teach these young believers. There are a number of reasons for this: a lack of theologically trained pastors, the low academic standards of pastors who have been trained in seminaries, the inability of these pastors to answer the questions of intellectuals, the sheer numbers of new believers, and the lack of materials for training the new Christians.
A New Generation
There are a number of significant factors which point the way to the emergence of the Christian student work in the future.
Since June 4, 1989, Bible study groups have begun on many Chinese campuses, now joined by undergraduates, graduates, professors and researchers. Also, since the mid-1980s there has been a marked growth of Chinese teachers and professors who have become Christians. Throughout a number of Chinese cities, professors are now supporting and encouraging Christian student groups.
Further, in at least 12 Chinese cities new Christian fellowship groups have been established in the past year. In each case these are Chinese-led with little or no involvement by foreign Christians. Some of these university fellowships number at over 100 students.
Lastly, in several cities there are house churches working exclusively with university students. However, there does not seem to be any structural organization or network at either the provincial or national level.
There remains a tremendous openness to the gospel among China’s intellectual community. Lack of resources, however, will make the challenge of training the intellectual community a critical issue for the Church. The need for Christian literature and apologetic resources written by Chinese Christian intellectuals in simplified Chinese script is critical.
Christians outside of China must now consider creative ways in which to establish a partnership with Chinese Christian intellectuals in order to facilitate their effectiveness in evangelizing and training this new generation of Christian students who are part of the legacy of June 4, 1989.